Mutual funds hold 32% of the U.S. equity market and comprise 58% of retirement savings, yet retail investors consistently make poor choices when selecting funds. Theory suggests poor choices are partially due to fund managers creating unnecessarily complex disclosures and fee structures to keep investors uninformed and obfuscate poor performance. An empirical challenge in investigating this “strategic obfuscation” theory is isolating manipulated complexity from complexity arising from inherent differences across funds.
We examine obfuscation among S&P 500 index funds, which have largely the same regulations, risks, and gross returns but charge widely different fees. Using bespoke measures of complexity designed for mutual funds, we find evidence consistent with funds attempting to obfuscate high fees. This study improves our understanding of why investors make poor mutual fund choices and how price dispersion persists among homogeneous index funds. We also discuss insights for mutual fund regulation and academic literature on corporate disclosures.
Click here to access the study, written by Ed deHaan and Yang Song of the University of Washington's Foster School of Business, Chloe Xie of MIT's Sloan School of Management, and Christina Zhu at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.